'No youth prisons:' activists call for closing juvenile detention facility in Martinez

A protest in Martinez Monday called for the closure of one juvenile facility and preservation of another. 

"No youth prisons, no youth prisons," chanted a few dozen people gathered outside Contra Costa County's Juvenile Hall. 

The demonstrators want the hall shut down and the Oren Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility saved. 

Better known as the Byron Boys Ranch, it is a fence-less facility for young offenders in east Contra Costa county. 

"We've got to look at where our money is going because that's our money," Contra Costa County Public Defender Ali Saidi told the crowd. 

He noted diversion and treatment are more humane and effective approaches, because most youth offenders are suffering from untreated mental disorders, and have experienced violence or trauma long before getting locked up. 

"It costs more than $20 million to run this place,  $20 million a year," Saidi shouted into a bullhorn. "Think what we could do for our families, for our mental health services for youth, with that money." 

Byron Boys Ranch offers classes and counseling, without jail cells, but its residents, who are wards of the county, would move elsewhere if it closes. 

"It is 50 acres of opportunity to really do restorative justice," said Tamisha Walker, one of the protest organizers. "We believe the ranch should stay open, the Juvenile Hall should close, the Marsh Creek facility should close, and the sheriff's budget should be cut significantly."

Another speaker, and member of Richmond's City Council, exhorted the crowd to participate in Tuesday's Board of Supervisor's meeting, when justice issues will be discussed, and public comment taken.

"We need investment in our young people to help them heal," said Melvin Willis of the Racial Justice Coalition. 

"Our issues have fallen on deaf ears but the incident with George Floyd just really turned up the heat on what people want to see from budgets and how money gets spent."  

One young man spoke of his own experience, incarcerated briefly.

"I was in here, in Juvenile Hall, and it was traumatizing," said a teenager named Jose. 

Last year, he said his grandmother had a psychotic break that brought deputies to the house, and they handcuffed him and took him into custody, without understanding the situation.

"They just use a lot of force that isn't necessary, especially when it's something little, they use lots of force," said Jose. 

His advocate, who described the teenager being thrown to the ground, expressed outrage that he was unfairly blamed instead of shown support. 

"The system failed him and failed his grandma," Christine Lobos told the crowd. 

"But if we help these kids, they have a bright future, you want to talk about budgets, it doesn't cost more to take care of people." 

Contra Costa's Juvenile Hall is not at capacity, another reason critics say it should be shuttered. 

A decision on the Boys Ranch is expected as part of budget hearings that begin next week.